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William Howe

William Howe

William Howe, 5th Viscount Howe (1729-1814), was British army commander-in-chief in America during the early years of the Revolution.

William Howe was born on Aug. 10, 1729, the younger brother of the future admiral Richard Howe. After attending Eton, he entered the army at the age of 17. For the next 30 years he rose steadily in rank. He distinguished himself in the Canadian campaign of the French and Indian War. Serving under Gen. James Wolfe at the siege of Quebec in 1759, Howe in the succeeding year commanded the attack on Montreal. In 1762 he participated in the siege of Spanish-held Havana, Cuba. When the war was over, he had a brilliant record. He also enjoyed important family connections at court and by 1772 had been advanced to major general.

Commander in Chief in America

Howe also held political office. In 1758 he had been elected to a seat in the House of Commons. While he did not take an active role in Parliament debate, he made clear his opposition to the Foreign Ministry's American policy and declared that he would refuse to accept a command in the Colonies. Yet Howe did go to America in May 1775, explaining that "he was ordered, and could not refuse." His command of the British forces in the Battle of Bunker Hill displayed personal valor and a considerably greater degree of energy and decision than he would show later. By October, Howe had been given a local rank of full general and made commander-in-chief of the British army in the Colonies. Considerable controversy has always surrounded the roles played by William and Richard Howe during the Revolution, because in addition to commanding the military they were supposed to negotiate peace with the Americans.

Howe was forced to evacuate Boston in March 1776; he moved his troops by sea to New York. His invasion of Long Island and Manhattan included a series of tactical successes. But the long delays and ineffective pursuits that followed, though they mauled the American forces, left Gen. George Washington's retreating army intact.

British overconfidence, the dilatory movements of Gen. Howe, and the failure of Gen. Charles Cornwallis to catch the retreating Washington all contributed to a surprising turn of events at the end of 1776. Howe had left scattered forces occupying central New Jersey as far as the Delaware River. In a surprise attack on December 6, 1776, the Americans routed a garrison at Trenton, and then 8 days later triumphed in a full-scale battle at Princeton. Gen. Howe had lost another chance to destroy Washington, and 1776 ended on a note of rebel victory.

Again, in 1777, Howe's strategic failures resulted in reverses for the British. The grand British strategy that year involved a two-pronged attack against the Americans. First, Gen. John Burgoyne would move down from Canada into New York to interrupt colonial communications, recruit Tory allies, and prepare for a later invasion of rebel strongholds. Second, Howe would move overland to engage the Continental Army in a contest for the American capital, Philadelphia. But Howe changed his mind, decided to bring his invading forces by water, wasted time maneuvering in New Jersey, and then spent nearly all of August at sea. Consequently, Howe's land movement toward Philadelphia did not begin until the end of August. A series of engagements—including British victories at Brandywine and Paoli—saw the British safely into the American capital. And American efforts to oust them were repulsed in early October.

Meanwhile, Howe was confronted with the decisive defeat of Gen. Burgoyne's troops at Saratoga. Burgoyne had earlier assured Howe of his ability to care for himself; and as a result, when he was besieged, there were no British forces near enough or large enough to rescue him. While the capture of Philadelphia did not really shake the Revolutionary cause, the defeat at Saratoga truly injured the British. It also made possible the Franco-American alliance of 1778.

Return to England

In October 1777, the month of Burgoyne's surrender, Howe offered his resignation. He then tried unsuccessfully to lure Washington into a general engagement. While Howe's army wintered in relative comfort in Philadelphia, Washington's men barely survived their encampment at Valley Forge. Howe finally received word that his resignation had been accepted and left Philadelphia in May 1778. Back in England, Howe became involved in an inconclusive debate on the conduct of the war and published a defense, claiming that all his actions had been determined by military necessity, not by any desire to appease the colonists.

Howe went on to hold a variety of important military positions. He became a full general in 1793. When the wars of the French Revolution began, he held important commands in the north and then in the east of England. In 1799, on the death of his brother, Richard, he succeeded to the Irish title of viscount. Failing health forced him to retire from active office in 1803. He died in Plymouth on July 12, 1814.

Further Reading

Useful for information on Howe are Troyer S. Anderson, The Command of the Howe Brothers during the American Revolution (1936), and Piers Mackesy, The War for America, 1775-1783 (1964). □

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Howe, William Howe, 5th Viscount

William Howe Howe, 5th Viscount, 1729–1814, English general in the American Revolution; younger brother of Admiral Richard Howe. He took up a military career, and in the last of the French and Indian Wars served with distinction at the capture of Louisburg and in the fight for Quebec (1759). He took part in the Havana expedition of 1762. In 1775 he arrived at Boston with British reinforcements for Gen. Thomas Gage, and he was a commander in the battle of Bunker Hill. He was knighted and succeeded (Oct., 1775) Gage as commander in chief in the colonies (the command in Canada being given to Gen. Guy Carleton). In 1776 he withdrew his men from besieged Boston to Halifax, then (May, 1776) went with his brother Richard to Staten Island. After negotiations for a peaceful settlement failed, Howe led his troops in the successful battle of Long Island, captured New York City, and defeated the Continental Army at White Plains. Although he gained control over SE New York and much of New Jersey, Howe missed several opportunities to capture George Washington's army. In 1777 he did not take the part planned for him in the British strategy in the Saratoga campaign. Instead he launched a successful drive for Philadelphia, defeating Washington in the battle of Brandywine. He later repelled an attack on Germantown and held his position in Philadelphia, but again, as at New York, he did not wipe out the Continental forces. Charging that he was not properly supported by the home government, he resigned and in 1778 returned to England. His command in America was taken over by Sir Henry Clinton. On his brother's death in 1799, Howe succeeded to the Irish title, becoming 5th Viscount Howe.

See biography by B. Partridge (1932); T. S. Anderson, The Command of the Howe Brothers during the American Revolution (1936, repr. 1971); I. D. Gruber, The Howe Brothers and the American Revolution (1972).

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Howe, Sir William

Howe, Sir William (1729–1814), British general.The youngest of the second Viscount Howe's three sons, all of whom served in America, William Howe joined the British army in 1746. During the French and Indian War he served at the Louisbourg Siege and the Battle of Québec. Howe returned to America in 1775 to reinforce Gen. Thomas Gage in the Revolutionary War, arriving in time to command British forces at the Battle of Bunker Hill. Howe won that battle (losing nearly 40% of his attack force) and succeeded Gage as commander in chief October 1775. During the campaign of 1776, Howe defeated the Continental army at Long Island, New York City, and White Plains. In 1777, hoping to capture the Congress, he invaded Pennsylvania, but had to settle for occupying Philadelphia, while the northern Continentals and militia defeated Gen. John Burgoyne's invading army in New York at the Battles of Saratoga. Upon Burgoyne's surrender, Howe resigned his command, leaving for England in 1778.

During his three years as commander in chief, Howe consistently stopped short of destroying his enemy when the opportunity arose—perhaps from a sensible estimate of the dangers of pursuit, or from Howe's contradictory roles. As peace commissioner, he was required to negotiate a peace that would bring the colonies voluntarily back into the empire. Howe squandered the British army's numerical superiority by refusing to unleash its full force on the Americans.
[See also Cornwallis, Charles; Clinton, Henry; Revolutionary War: Military and Diplomatic Course.]

Bibliography

Ira Gruber , The Howe Brothers and the American Revolution, 1972.

Jon T. Coleman

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Howe, William

Howe, William (1729–1814). Younger brother of Richard Howe, William served in the army in Flanders 1747–8, and with distinction in Canada and Cuba 1759–62. Between 1758 and 1780 he was MP for Nottingham, where there was a family interest. Having previously refused to serve in America at the outbreak of rebellion, he arrived in Boston in May 1775, and after Bunker Hill was appointed KB. The following May, alongside his brother, William Howe was deputed to offer conciliation to the colonists; but after two years they resigned this joint commission, and Clinton succeeded Major-General Howe. Promoted full general in 1793, Howe became governor of Berwick-on-Tweed and, in 1805, of Plymouth, where he died. In 1799 he had succeeded, on Richard's death, to the Irish barony first conferred on their great-grandfather by George I. Lord Melbourne, in his breezy way, told the young Victoria that Howe was ‘as brave as a lion, but no more of a commander than a pig’.

David Denis Aldridge

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Howe, Sir William

Howe, Sir William (1729–1814) British general during the American Revolution. He fought at Bunker Hill and became commander in chief of British forces in North America in 1775. He captured New York (1776) and occupied Philadelphia (September 1777). After defeat at Saratoga (1777), he resigned and returned to England (1778).

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